I look down – jeans, boots, a white vest, a red shirt unbuttoned. “Yeah. Why?”
“It’s not very…” She screws her face up. “Sexy?”
“Sexy?” I look down again. I can see down the vest to my non-existent boobs. “I wasn’t trying to be sexy.”
“And it shows.” Maddy opens my wardrobe and starts flicking through the clothes – it doesn’t take long, I’ve never been that interested in fashion.
“God, Del’,” Maddy turns to look at me, “Is this everything?”
“Yeah. Well, apart from tops and stuff in the drawers.”
“What about Jamie, has she got anything?”
“She will have, but she won’t lend it to me.”
“She might if I ask her and tell her what we need it for.”
“What do we need it for?” I ask, but she’s already left for my sister’s room. I get on OK with my sister, but we mostly avoid each other. If she’s not out with her boyfriend, Jack, she’s in her room listening to music. And I wouldn’t dream of borrowing anything of hers without asking. Not again, anyway. Mads once talked me into taking one of Jamie’s bags on a night out and when Jamie found out she went berserk and smacked me round the head with it.
“Ta-da!” Maddy says, bursting through the door holding a black and white minidress, black leggings, silver shoes and the very silver bag I last saw as it bounced onto the floor off my head.
“How did you–”
“It’s all about the charm, baby,” she says, laying the clothes out on my bed. “And she agreed that you’d never pull Dan Bailey dressed like that!”
“Dan?” I whisper. I can feel my face heating up.
“Didn’t I tell you he’s coming?” Maddy says, brightly, as she starts tugging my shirt off me.
“You know you didn’t,” I say. I pull the shirt off and throw it back into the bottom of my wardrobe then pull the vest over my head and drop it on the floor.
“You should take better care of your clothes,” Maddy says. She glances down at my chest. “Have you got a Wonderbra?”
“You know I haven’t.”
Sighing, Maddy heads back to my sister’s room.
Dan Bailey. I have loved Dan Bailey since the first time I saw him. My first day of primary school. Sitting on the floor in Mrs Robinson’s class. The mums were all sitting at the back of the room and my mum had promised me she wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye, but then I turned to check she was still there and she’d gone. I cried, obviously, and Dan – he was Daniel then – came up and gave me a box of crayons.
I was stunned. Not just because he’d come to cheer me up. Not just because he was easily the cutest boy in the class (yes, even at four years old you notice), but because the crayons were brand new, unopened. Jamie is only two years older than me and up until then I’d only ever had her hand-me-downs, which she usually managed to completely wreck before they got to me.
“Can I open them?” I’d breathed.
Daniel shrugged and went back to the sand pit. Mrs Robinson kissed the top of my head and said, “Of course!”
That – 11 years ago – was the longest conversation I’ve ever had with Dan Bailey.
“Here you go,” Maddy says, brandishing Jamie’s white Wonderbra at me. I take it from her and turn towards the wardrobe to change bras. I’ve never been comfortable with getting my clothes off in front of anyone else. Maddy will just strip off and get changed in front of me and I don’t know where to look, but I prefer a bit of privacy.
“I can still see your boobs in the mirror, you know,” Maddy says.
“You shouldn’t be looking!” I say as I hook the bra in the back.
“I’m not,” Maddy says. “I’m just saying I could if I wanted to.”
I roll my eyes and pull Jamie’s dress over my head. I have to admit, it looks quite good. Between the dress and the bra I almost look like I’ve got boobs and it gives me a bit of a waist too.
“It suits you,” Maddy says. “I knew it would!”
I pull the leggings on and then the shoes. They kill.
“I can’t wear these all night!”
“Of course you can.”
“They really hurt!”
“Don’t worry, your feet’ll go numb in a couple of hours.”
“Oh well that’s something to look forward to.”
Maddy starts dragging a brush through my long, brown hair. “What are you going to do with it?” she asks.
“Nah, boys like long hair, leave it down.”
I shake my head. “No, it drives me mad–”
“God, just leave it down! It looks good! Why do you always have to argue.”
“Why do you always have to be so bossy?”
“Because I know what’s best for you.”
And because she’s got three little sisters and she treats me like a fourth.
“And what’s that?”
“Getting dolled up, going to your party and getting off with Dan Bailey.”
I snort. “Yeah, right. And it’s not my party, it’s Jamie’s.” Next week, my sister is going away to work for the summer before going to university, in London, in September. This party is her big send-off. “And how do you even know he’s going to come?”
“Sid told me.” Sid has been Maddy’s boyfriend since the last year of primary school. Seriously.
“And how does Sid know?”
“He asked Dan.”
She speaks slowly as if I’m an idiot. “Sid asked Dan if he was coming to your party. Dan said yes.”
I can feel my cheeks getting hot again. “Why did he ask him?”
“To see if he was coming. God!”
“No. I mean, were they talking or what or did Sid just go up to him and ask him?”
“I don’t know, I think he saw him at football or something and he asked him.”
“But why? I mean, did he say something about me?”
“You’re so self-obsessed,” she says, joking (I hope). “No, I doubt he said anything about you.”
“So what makes you think tonight will be any different from any other night? What makes you think that Dan Bailey will even notice I’m alive?”
“Because you’re wearing a Wonderbra, a dress, silver shoes, make-up–”
“I’m not wearing make-up.”
Maddy turns and empties her make-up bag out onto my bed. “Sit down.”
“You look lovely!” My mum says. “Steven, Steven! Come and have a look at Della!”
This is why I hate to get done up. I hate being the centre of attention. I’d much rather look like myself and let everyone ignore me.
“A pretty girl…” my dad sings, as he comes through the double doors into the lounge, “…is like a melody!”
Maddy snorts and my dad grabs her hands and swings her round, singing Brown Eyed Girl, the way he always does. I wouldn’t mind, but her eyes are hazel.
“It’s all my stuff,” Jamie says, coming down the stairs. She’s wearing the shortest boy shorts with a skimpy vest and she’s got a face mask on.
“Jesus,” my dad says. “Go and get dressed, will you? You’ll frighten the cat.”
Jamie sticks her tongue out to him and sashays (I’m sorry, but there’s no other word for it) into the kitchen. I see my parents exchange a look and Maddy elbows me.
“So when are you going?” I ask.
“Oh, that’s charming, that is,” Dad says. “Can’t wait to get rid of us!”
“Maybe we won’t go,” Mum says. “Maybe we’ll stay and party with you girls. It’s not every day one of our babies goes off to make her way in the world.”
Dad does some hip-swivelling, I cover my face with my hands and, from the kitchen, I hear Jamie say, “Oh, for God’s sake.”
“We’ll be out of your hair in no time,” Dad says, still dancing. “As long as we have your solemn promise that there’ll be no boys and no drinking.”
“No way,” Maddy says. “It’s all girls. Jelly and ice-cream, a children’s entertainer and then we’re going to do each other’s hair and watch Disney films.”
“That’s what I like to hear!” He wanders through to the kitchen, calling, “Say no to drugs,” over his shoulder.
“I love your dad,” Maddy says, as she always does.
“You do look lovely,” my mum says then. She reaches up and hooks my hair behind one ear. “You should wear your hair down more often.”
“Dan Bailey’s coming,” Jamie says, as she headed back upstairs, carrying a pack of celery, a jar of mayonnaise and a jar of peanut butter.
“Are you pregnant?” Mum says, nodding at the food.
“Yeah, right,” Jamie says, stopping at the bottom of the stairs. “You use more calories eating celery than there are actually in celery so then you’ve got calories to spare.” She waves the peanut butter at us, as if that explains it. “And I’m lining my stomach. For the jelly and ice-cream.”
“Come on, we’d better get going,” Dad says, coming back in with his jacket on and shrugging Mum’s coat over her shoulders.
“Have a lovely time,” Mum says. She reaches out and hugs us both.
“We will, thanks.”
“Good luck with Dan.”
Maddy and I back out of the room and then sit on the stairs until they leave.
“Maybe we should’ve let them stay,” Maddy says, ridiculously, once we’re sure they’ve gone. (I wouldn’t put it past them to hide in the garden and sneak back in when we weren’t expecting it.)
“No way,” I say. “Dan would end up getting off with my mum!”
Mum used to be a model. When we were little, she was away working quite a lot and Dad stayed home with us, but then they started their own business and she started coming to pick us up from school in leather trousers, boots, silky tops. Everyone wondered why their dads had started coming to collect them when they’d never bothered before. She’s still beautiful now, but I don’t think she can quite believe she a housewife in Lancashire (albeit one who owns a chain of delis) and not, I don’t know, married to Rod Stewart or Simon le Bon or someone.
I can’t quite believe it myself. Even now she looks out of place at parents evenings or whatever. It’s not just that she’s so gorgeous, it’s the way she holds herself, like she knows everyone’s looking at her. Once we were walking down the street and someone shouted her name. She turned, flicking her hair almost in slow motion like she was on a red carpet or something, and it was only the postman. She didn’t look disappointed though, she looked as pleased to see him as if he’d been George Clooney.
The thing about having a beautiful mother and being, well, ordinary yourself, is that everyone is so shocked when they see her. If I had a pound for every time someone said, “Is that your mum?!” in this incredulous, amazed way. And then I see them look at me and then at her and back at me as if they’re wondering what happened. And they may as well, because my dad’s pretty gorgeous too, which is why Maddy loves him so much. (And he’s funny, that helps.)
And Jamie’s the same (as mum, I mean). She’s got that X factor. Boys are always falling in love with her and doing dramatic things to get her attention. No-one’s ever done anything dramatic to get my attention. In fact, when I’ve given boys my attention, they haven’t even noticed.
* * * * *
“So what are you going to say to Dan?” Maddy asks later, as we started locking ‘breakables’ away in cupboards.
“Me? Why me?”
“Why not you?”
I blink at her.
“Listen, what does Dr Phil say?” Maddy loves Dr Phil, the psychologist guy she’s always watching on Living or somewhere. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
“It’s the definition of insanity.”
“I thought that was talking to yourself.”
“No, that’s the first sign of madness. Anyway, what have you always done, where Dan’s concerned.”
“Exactly. And where’s that got you?”
“So what do you need to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Something! And that will get you somewhere!”
“And they gave him his own show for that?!”
“No, he was Oprah Winfrey’s lawyer or something. But listen, it makes sense.”
“But the other thing doing nothing has got me is not embarrassed and humiliated, but doing something might.”
“Feel the fear and do it anyway!”
“I don’t want to.”
We’ve just about got everything locked away – and Jamie has just come down looking, horrifyingly (for me, not for her), pretty much exactly like our mother – when people start to arrive. First our friends Rosy and Amber and then a load of my sister’s friends, who are really loud and already pretty drunk.
Two guys immediately set up record decks – who brings their own decks to a party? – and the girls slump on the sofas and watched them put records on and take records off. I’d brought my iPod and dock down, but I decide there and then to lock them away too.
As I head up to my room, there’s already a couple – I don’t know them – snogging on the stairs.
“They didn’t waste much time,” Maddy says, elbowing me. When I come back down, we go into the kitchen and Maddy gets us both cans of Red Bull.
“Hey!” Sid says, coming up behind us. He puts an arm around each of our shoulders and Maddy turns to kiss him and to say hello to his friend Leo, who’s never very far away. Maddy sometimes jokes it’s like she’s got two boyfriends since she hardly ever sees Sid without Leo (except when they, you know, REALLY need to be alone). She doesn’t mind though, because Leo is gorgeous and funny and they get on brilliantly. I think he’s secretly in love with Maddy, but she says it’s more likely that he’s secretly in love with Sid.
“Want some of this?” Sid says. He waves a miniature of vodka towards Maddy’s Red Bull. He pours some in both of our cans and then says, “So are you up for it?”
“What?” I ask.
Oh. “Umm. Yeah, kind of,” I say.
“That’s the spirit,” he says, laughing. “You’re looking gorgeous, by the way, Della.”
“Oy.” Maddy shoves him. “She’s got a plan tonight.”
“Oh yeah,” Sid says, grinning. “Dan Bailey.”
“Is he here?” Maddy asks.
“I haven’t seen him yet,” Sid admits. “But I think there’s someone shagging in the lav, that could be him.”
“Shut up,” Maddy says. “Tonight’s the night for Della and Dan.”
“Sounds like a dodgy porno.”
“And you’d know,” Maddy says.
We follow Sid and Leo into the front room. The music is deafening, but there are only about eight people in the room. A couple – Lauren and Connor – that we know from school and a bunch of lads who’ve obviously got bored with the records and are now sifting through Dad’s CDs. There’s a guy with blue hair and headphones playing on a PSP and a girl with dyed black hair texting. Wow. Some party.
“Par-tay!” Sid says and shoves me and Maddy back out into the hall. We all go back through the kitchen and out of the back door. There are more people in the garden than the house and the music is still loud enough that a couple of Jamie’s (male) friends are pogoing on the patio. We sit down on a bench under the back window and Sid lights a cigarette and hands it to Maddy.
“I thought you’d given up?” I say.
“I have,” Maddy says. “I’m a social smoker and this is a social occasion.”
I roll my eyes as Maddy passes the cig on to Leo.
The back door opens again and a crowd of about 12 spills out. Boys and girls who seem already drunk. I suck my stomach in and try to arrange my face to show casualness in case Dan is with them, but he isn’t. One of the lads trips off the patio and falls face down on the lawn, while the rest of them cackle and whoop.
I get up and go back into the house, wondering where my sister might be. Just as I walk into the hall, I see Dan coming out of the lounge and feel myself start to blush. I turn to go back outside, but I hear him speak.
“What?” I turn around again. “Sorry, did you say something?” My voice is tiny.
He grins. He’s got the most gorgeous grin. “Yeah. I said, what’s going on out there?” He nods towards the garden. “Fighting already?”
“No, no.” I walk backwards into the kitchen until I hit the table and then I stop. He follows me in and stops in front of me. “Someone fell over,” I say, brilliantly. I reach behind me to steady myself and knock over a bottle of beer.
“Shit!” I grab a tea towel off the side and mop it up. It’s dripping on to the floor. I bend down and dab at the floor too and then, as I get up, bang my head on the table. “Shit!”
Dan laughs. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I say without getting up. I think about actually crawling under the table and just staying there, but then Dan says, “Are you getting up?”
“Yeah.” I scramble to my feet and I don’t think I’ve ever blushed so hard.
“You look like you could do with some fresh air,” Dan says, opening the back door. I follow him out and see Maddy’s eyebrows shoot up behind her fringe. She lolls her tongue out of her mouth and I pull a face at her.
The boys all greet Dan with hoots and thumps, the way boys do. I’m edging back towards Maddy when Dan turns to me and said, “Have you got a drink?”
“Do you want to sit down?” He gestures at a bench at the side of the garden, in front of the shed.
“Yeah, thanks.” I sit down, thinking he’s still worried about my head, but then he surprises me by sitting down next to me.
“Nice house,” he says.
I look around like an idiot, as if I’m not sure whose house it is. “Thanks.”
“Your mum was a model, right?” he asks and I feel myself start to blush. Yeah, stupid me, thinking he was interested in me when he just wants to know about my mum. You’d think I’d learn, but I never do.
“She was, yeah,” I say. “In the eighties.”
We both just sit there and then Dan says, “I like a lot of eighties music.”
“Yeah?” I ask. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be into all that cheesy eighties stuff at all. “Like what?”
“I like Madness. Simple Minds. The Cure.”
“Oh right,” I say, smiling. “I thought you meant the cheesy stuff. Like Kajagoogoo. You know the Now That’s What I Call Music CDs?”
“Well my mum and dad have got loads of them from, like, number five or something. They’re on cassette and every now and then they get them out and dance around to these ridiculous songs like The Safety Dance.”
“Men Without Hats,” Dan says and I laugh. “Yes! Or Kayleigh by Marillion.”
“I like that one!” Dan says, pretending to be offended.
I smile at him and he smiles back until I start to get embarrassed and have to look away. I try to think of more songs – I should know loads, I’ve heard those albums often enough – but I can’t think of any. And anyway, I’m worried that the moment’s gone and if I just sit here naming eighties bands he’ll think I’m a complete dork.
“They have eighties nights at the Cav,” Dan says. “Do you fancy going some time?”
I glance at him, but he’s looking straight ahead, down the garden. I don’t know what to say. I mean, what if he’s asking me for a bet or something? What if I say ‘yes’ and he bursts out laughing and runs over to his mates? I’d die. Literally. I would quite literally die. Here, by the shed.
But then I don’t get a chance to say anything at all, because Kyle Armstrong comes bursting through the kitchen door and literally knocks Dan off the bench and onto the grass, shouting “All pile on!”
Boys start running from every corner of the garden and, as I pass the pile, I see Dan, at the bottom. His face is bright red, but he’s laughing.
In the kitchen, I pick up another Red Bull and Sid meets me in the hall, which is crammed, and tops it up with vodka. I try the front room, which is a bit more lively, but still more a games room than anything else (and it already smells of farts). I get to the front door and actually think about just leaving, but I know Maddy would go berserk if I did. Anyway, this is my house – where would I go? Usually, I’d go to Maddy’s, but she’s in my garden. God, I hate parties. What are you supposed to do? I don’t know what to do with myself. I lean back against the door and try to look casual. I want to look like ‘I’m so relaxed here alone, checking it all out’ rather than ‘I’ve got no friends and I want to go to bed.’ I obviously don’t pull it off because Jack, Jamie’s boyfriend, puts his face really close to mine and says, “Are you okay?”
I lean back a bit. He’s definitely a bit too close and his breath smells of – well, I’m not sure what – but it’s really strong. Maybe whisky. Or vodka. Or is that the one that doesn’t smell?
“Yeah,” I start to say. “I’m fi–.”
I don’t get to finish the sentence because Jack’s tongue is in my mouth.
I push him away. “What do you think you’re doing?!”
“Oh, come on,” he says, but his eyes look more unsure. “It’s a party!”
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s Jamie’s party. Jamie? Your girlfriend?”
“You’re as fucking bad as her,” he says and walks off.
I take a couple of steps back and sit down on the stairs. I’m actually shaking. How horrible. I’ve always thought he was okay, but that was just… horrible. I stare at the streetlights through the glass in the front door. Yellow and fuzzy. I let my eyes unfocus and the lights bounce around like baby chicks. I think about going to bed. Alone. My bedroom door has a lock on it. I could just lock myself in, put a pillow on my head and forget all about this pathetic party.
“What are you doing?” I hear Maddy say and I lift my head up from my knees. “You were talking to Dan, I saw you! What are you doing back in here, on your own.”
I don’t want to tell her about Jack because I know she’d go and tell Sid and there’d be a big scene and Jamie would kill me for ruining her party so instead I say, “He asked me out… I think.”
“Dan?” She grins and sits down next to me. “Oh my god! So what did you say?”
“I didn’t get a chance to say anything. Kyle Armstrong came out and–”
“All pile on? He is such a knob.”
“So what are you going to do? Are you waiting for him?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “What if he was joking? Or it was, like, for a bet or something?”
Maddy rolls her eyes. “You’re unbelievable. Of course he wasn’t joking. What did he actually say?”
“See!” I say. “You’re not convinced either.”
“Just tell me what he said.”
I tell her and she says, “For God’s sake! Get back out in that garden and tell him you’d love to go out with him.”
“But what if–”
“Della, you’ve liked him for years and he’s just asked you out. What are you going to do? Say yes or go upstairs and write all about it in your diary?”
She knows me too well. I stand up and she smacks my bum and says, “Attagirl.” She needs to lay off the Red Bull.
I take a deep breath and push the back door open. Kyle Armstrong is lying on his back trying to balance a can on his forehead, while his mates cheer him on. There’s no sign of Dan.
I turn to go back in the house, but Gemima Lee is heading out into the garden. God, as if things weren’t bad enough. Gemima is the most popular girl at school, with the boys at least. She’s also Dan’s best friend. And she hates me. Of course.
“Oh God,” she says as soon as she sees me. “Who let you in?”
I can’t think of a funny comeback (of course I can’t), but I do manage to say, “This is my house, idiot”, but as I try to push past her to go back inside, she puts her arm across to stop me. Now if there’s one thing I really hate it’s being trapped. When I was little, my sister used to sit on me to stop me doing whatever it was I wanted to do. I hated it then and I hate it now. And I hate it even more because Gemima is doing it to me.
“Just get out of my way, Gemima,” I try. I’d hoped to sound menacing, but I actually sound pretty squeaky.
Gemima confirms this by repeating it in a squeaky voice. Great. “I just wondered why you were going inside,” she says. “Looking for Dan?”
Crap. Maddy and I have suspected for a while that Gemima knows how I feel about Dan, but we didn’t know for sure.
“What makes you think he’d be interested in you?” Gemima says then. “I mean, your sister maybe, your mum even, but you?” She throws her head back and laughs, giving me a close-up view of the love bite on her collarbone. Lovely.
“I just want to go inside, Gemima,” I say.
“He knows you like him,” Gemima says and I freeze. “He thinks it’s very funny.”
I feel like I’m going to be sick. In fact, I kind of hope I am. Throwing up on Gemima Lee would be an excellent end to a shitty evening. I yank the door so hard that it hits her in the back and she jerks her arm away, saying, “Jesus! Touchy!” and then laughs again.
I stomp into the house and for a minute I can’t even think what I’m doing, then I realise I’m going to bed and I’m flooded with relief. No more slobbery boys or bitchy girls or vodka and red bull. No more Dan Bailey asking me out as some kind of fucking joke. I climb over the numerous couples humping each other on the stairs and I’m almost at my bedroom door when Jack steps in front of me.
I feel like crying, quite honestly. It’s like one of those nightmares where you need to be somewhere and you just can’t get there because things keep getting in your way and you’re getting more and more panicky.
Jack grabs me around the waist and pulls him against me. He smells of Fahrenheit aftershave, which I used to like, but not anymore. I feel his mouth, slobbery, on my neck and I wonder for a second if he’s who Gemima got her love bite from. I try to push him away, but he’s holding me really tightly. He pushes me back against the wall and that’s when I start to feel a bit scared. As he moves to, I think, kiss me again, I say ‘No!’ really loudly and try to push him again. He staggers backwards and at first I think I must have got superhuman strength from somewhere, but then I realise Dan is there. Dan had pulled Jack away from me.
I practically fall into my bedroom so I don’t know what happens between Dan and Jack, but I do hear someone stumbling down the stairs and I know it must have been Jack when there’s a quiet knock on my door frame and Dan pokes his head in. “Are you okay?”
I nod, even though I’m crying so he must know I’m not really.
“Can I come in?” he asks.
I nod again.
He steps just inside the room and says, “Don’t let him upset you. He’s an arsehole.”
“He’s my sister’s boyfriend.”
“He’s still an arsehole.”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m okay.” I wave my hand as if to say he can go, but he says, “You didn’t answer my question. About the Cav?”
“You weren’t joking?” I ask.
“Why would I be joking?” he says.
“Gemima Lee said…” I stop myself because I’m aware of how pathetic I sound.
He laughs. “You don’t want to listen to what Gemima says. She loves winding people up.”
He sits down on the bed next to me and I sigh. I do. I can’t help it. I think about Maddy’s Dr Phil peptalk and I think about the fact that Dan Bailey has asked me out, twice, and I still haven’t said yes and then I just think, well, what do I have to lose?
And I kiss him.